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Role players help Nuggets look like championship team

DENVER -- Coaches are fond of reminding us that basketball is a team sport, that no single player can carry a team to a championship. And they're right. Shaquille O'Neal couldn't have won without Kobe Bryant (and vice versa), Tim Duncan would have been lost without Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker, and Paul Pierce didn't win anything until he was teamed with Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen.

But title-winning teams are deeper than two or even three star players. Where would the Lakers have been in 2002 without Robert Horry, who pulled their fat out of the fire with two game-saving three-pointers? (Come to think of it, would they have won any of their three championships this decade without Big Shot Rob?) Or where would the Spurs be without Bruce Bowen, whose pesky defense was instrumental in San Antonio's raising three of its four banners?

Championship teams need to be eight, sometimes nine players deep. They need significant contributions from their role players and more than just towel waving from their bench.

On Monday, in their 120-101 victory (RECAP | BOX) against the Lakers in Game 4 of the Western Conference finals, the Nuggets looked like a championship team.

On a night when a stomach bug got the best of Carmelo Anthony (15 points on 3-for-16 shooting) and with Chauncey Billups tying a postseason low with three assists, the rest of the team stepped up. A day after being chided by his coach for taking too many jump shots, J.R. Smith (24 points) attacked the rim with abandon. Nene (14 points, 13 rebounds, six assists) was an all-around force and received help controlling the paint from Kenyon Martin (13 points, 15 rebounds). Chris Andersen (14 rebounds, two blocks) was practically daring the Lakers to take it to the rim and Dahntay Jones was so physical with Kobe Bryant that Lakers coach Phil Jackson stopped just short of calling him a dirty player.

Seven Nuggets finished in double figures as Denver relied on its depth to tie the series at 2-2 heading into Game 5 on Wednesday in Los Angeles.

"They just kicked our [expletive]," Bryant said.

Said Nuggets coach George Karl: "There was an urgency to our performance. The result showed in the scoreboard. J.R. played great. L.K. [Linas Kleiza, who scored 10 points] was good. Our bench was the best it had been all series."

No player represents the Nuggets more than Smith, whose dynamic skills and uncontrollable emotions have defined Denver's team over the last few years. In Game 3, Smith ground the Nuggets' momentum to a halt when he incurred a technical foul for taunting Lakers guard Sasha Vujacic at the end of the third quarter.

"That hurt us," Karl said before Monday's game.

In Game 4, Smith helped. On Sunday, the Nuggets' coaching staff told Smith that Vujacic could not stay in front of him when he drove to the basket. In the second quarter, Smith heeded the advice. Playing 11 of the 12 minutes, Smith attacked the rim relentlessly, finishing the period with nine points. His penetration looked effortless and even when he didn't score, he contributed. He picked up an assist when one drive led to an easy alley-oop for Andersen and picked up another when a romp through the paint led to a Nene dunk. With a rhythm established, the jump shot began to fall and Smith closed the door on the Lakers in the fourth with three three-pointers.

"I was really down on myself [after Game 3]," Smith said. "[Karl wanted] me making plays for my teammates. Not just looking for myself and my own shot, but penetrating, getting to the basket and looking for people."

But there is another attribute that defines champions: consistency. The Nuggets showcased a veritable Swiss Army knife of weapons in Game 4, but they will need to bring the same effort to Los Angeles, where the teams would play two of the next three games if the series goes the distance.

"I'm sure we'll talk about that tomorrow," Billups said. "We kind of feel like if we have a repeat effort game like we had tonight that we're going to be a difficult out."

Championship teams usually are.

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